G.A. Chaves Interview and Translations

Photo by Michelle J. Wong

G.A. Chaves (Costa Rica, 1979) is the author of Cuentos etcétera (stories, 2004), and Vida ajena (poems, 2010). He has translated an anthology of poems by Robinson Jeffers and Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky. He has also edited the selected poetry of Costa Rica’s Carlos de la Ossa.  Poetry International’s Managing Editor Jennifer Minniti-Shippey was excited to interview him about contemporary Spanish-language poetry, his work as a translator, and everything in between. 

In your opinion, who are the most interesting poets writing in Spanish today?  What sets them apart, and makes them must-read poets?

Among the ones I know best, I think that Fabio Morábito (Mexico) and Rafael Courtoisie (Uruguay) are both major poets with very distinctive voices. Morábito has a reportage kind of immediacy to his language, whereas Courtoisie is a ceaselessly experimental virtuoso.

I recently discovered the poetry of another Mexican, Luis Felipe Fabre. His poems seem to be capable of making old tricks (like rhyme) useful and fun again.

In Spain, I like the variety of Juan Carlos Mestre’s work. He’s densely personal, yet not confessional; and strongly social, though not quite political. He seems to me a modern-day John Donne: everything he sees becomes poetry.

Javier Payeras (Guatemala) is an incredibly inventive poet with an amazing eye for dramatic details.

There are two Costa Rican poets who I think we will keep reading for many years: Silvia Piranesi (a tropical Samuel Beckett, with a vengeance) and Klaus Steinmetz (a poet who understands that intelligence is not the negation of intense feeling). When I read Steinmetz and Piranesi I have to conclude that, yes, there are still things that can only be said through poetry, and that the medium of verse is not only valid but also very necessary.

There are two other Costa Rican poets that make me feel that the place I inhabit is worth writing about: Luis Chaves (no relation) and Alfredo Trejos. Their poems are as familiar to me as the city I live in.

What European poets are best known or loved by their Spanish language counterparts?  And what American poets?

I feel like all I can do here is name-dropping. While all the major names (Ginsberg, Ashbery, Celan, Szymborska, Enzensberger, Pavese, Bonnefoy, Transtromer) are well-known, I think people look for stuff everywhere and their writing is proof of that. I think that not many people know Don Paterson and Jürgen Becker, which is a shame. But maybe I’m just hanging out in the wrong neighborhood.

Translators who work with Romance languages often wrestle with capturing the musicality of those languages in English, with its more limited range of rhyme.  When you translate poems from English into Spanish, what is your process?  What poets have been “easiest” to translate into Spanish?  And who have been difficult?

I think this is a mistake. We all despair too quickly when our target languages can’t quite reproduce the fixtures of the original, and end up thinking that our native languages are somewhat inept. The reason why Spanish, for example, gives the impression of being rhyme-rich is because it is completely regular in its five vowel sounds. An “o” will always rhyme with an “o.” That’s why “rezo” and “mozo” can pass as rhymes. But I think every writer with a good sense of prosody will tell you that this is a limitation. English is so maddeningly irregular that it could rhyme the Spanish “rezo” with the English “wrestle.” More than a limitation, I think that’s a blessing.

When you translate poems from English into Spanish, what is your process?  What poets have been “easiest” to translate into Spanish?  And who have been difficult?

I no longer think there are “easy” poets to translate. Just to give you an example, when Alí Calderón, the editor of Círculo de poesía, a poetry magazine in Mexico, contacted me to request some translations of mine to publish, I went to my book shelf and picked what I remembered was a straightforward, no-nonsense poet: Ilya Kaminsky. I was in the middle of other projects and preparing a trip abroad, so I was trying to keep it simple. I did the translations quickly and sent them off, and only later, when I started translating the rest of Dancing in Odessa, did I realize what I had gotten myself into: Kaminsky is so nuanced, so weirdly chanting in his poems… I had completely failed to capture this the first time. It took a lot of humbling work to turn his poems into a worthy Spanish text.

So far, Stanley Crawford’s novel Log of the SS. The Mrs. Unguentine is the hardest translation I’ve done. It’s only a hundred pages long, but it took two translators to do it. I was functioning mostly as a consultant to Andrea Mickus, the other translator on the project, but it was a very demanding and exhausting job all the same.

How does working as a translator influence your own poetry?  What can young poets learn by translating the work of other writers?

I started translating out of sheer necessity to learn how to write. You often hear from writers this old piece of advice about re-typing the great works of the masters to let that energy enter your system. Well, I don’t much care for energy, but I have learned technique from doing this. You have this powerful Robinson Jeffers lyric in front of you, and then you have this flabby little joke of a story in Spanish, and you wonder how are the two related? Little by little, you learn to pay closer attention to the original’s technique, and you get to use that in your own writing. Ultimately, translation teaches one how to read, and that’s essential to good writing as well.


Five Poems by G.A. Chaves

Desayuno, by Juan Gris

(MoMA, 2008)

(for Julio Acuña, in memoriam)

Terracotta is the color of origin;
and grey, the color of Juan.
We are what we eat:
earth, letters, wings, and ash.

(Winter’s colors
should be primaries:
in the beginning were water and ashes.)

We are always a beginning, Julio:
we’re a table set with the tools,
smoking, peaceful,
that give way to another dawn.


Chaves, Portugal

Life that breaks me against its hard angles,
(life, eroded, without the faith of my dead),
life, intermittent, with uncertain steps,

the life of my poems, the life of silence…
the evident life—as Melcion Mateu said—
seems a little strange and distant in this fire

that sometimes I call sky and others cielo and now céu.


Foncebadón, Camino de Santiago

When we’ve lost the fear
of not hearing more than our own pulse,

and only the dust of our steps
remains between the stumps of dry grass,

the stone fences grow weak, unreal,
and the hermitage fills with overwhelmed flies.

(This silence seems poor
but took centuries ripening.)


Idaho, 1997
for Olga Ruiz

Olguita sent me a petal in her letter and asked me to check if there are flowers where I live or if the sky is like the one over her house but here I only see snow and the night sky is the same with its stars and its blackness is broader than ever sometimes I lose sight of the moon but I don’t get sad because her petal doesn’t fade and I reread the letter where Olguita wrote life looks so beautiful at our age while I wait to leave this house and return to my own and see the whole flower planted below the narrow sky and the lovely Olguita imagining everything and writing me letters.


Catullus XCVI

(for Carlos de la Ossa)

Because some joy must come with this
interior, artificial winter,
where we keep lovers and friends
who with time we’ve lost,
let’s not mourn the time spent
while in our skin their memory remains.

Let’s leave with our souls,
if it’s the soul that survives,
if so much strength and cold
hasn’t changed it into an animal.
Be happy in your bones, Carlos;
use them up until the world cannot weigh them down.

Translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Minniti- Shippey

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